There will be many more days of picking over the minutiae of the 2,000 page report, but some key elements are clear — and have already split the coalition and the House of Commons.
Statutory regulation, or underpinning in the jargon, of an “independent” press regulator is Leveson’s core recommendation. If it happened, this would mean a specific law would set out aspects of control of the press for the first time in over 300 years. Index is strongly opposed to any such statutory involvement in press regulation.
In his brief remarks presenting the report today, Leveson attempted to pre-empt such criticism asserting: “This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.” But the Prime Minister David Cameron disagreed in his statement to the House of Commons saying he had “serious concerns and misgivings” and that statutory underpinning of an “independent” regulator would be an “enormous” step.
Leveson’s report sets out in great detail the characteristics and criteria that the new regulator should meet. It also suggests that a “recognition body” would assess and “certify” that the regulator met these criteria — with Ofcom suggested as the best organisation to be this recognition body. MPs would vote into law these criteria, and would vote into law the process by which an “independent” appointments panel would select the chair and board of the regulator (which would exclude any current editor).
This politicisation of press control would be a major breach of the principles of freedom of expression and a free press. There are fundamental reasons why politicians and media should be distinct from and independent of each other. The cronyism between media, police and politicians, exposed in part in the Leveson Inquiry, is not a reason to establish a sort of “reverse cronyism” whereby media would risk being pressurised by government and other politicians.
The media has a vital role to play — as Leveson himself indicated — in monitoring and reporting the political scene, challenging and criticising and holding to account those in power; if journalists cannot do this robustly and without fear of interference or other political consequences, press freedom is constrained. Beyond this, even “light” statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.
The fact that, in Leveson’s recommendations, it is left as “voluntary” for news publishers to decide to join, does not mitigate the fact that all those who do join are part of a statutorily-established process. And there is also a Catch-22 here since the Report states that the press regulator should only be recognised as effective if “all significant news publishers” join. So if one major news outfit doesn’t join, the regulator is deemed unacceptable. In that case, all “significant” news publishers would be part of the statutorily-established system.
The system Leveson proposes is very similar to that operating in Ireland since 2009. The Irish system does not however demand that all significant news outfits join. And, on the other hand, the Irish model is somewhat more intrusive in that the Justice Minister there essentially plays the role that Leveson suggests Ofcom would play in the UK system. While Ofcom is somewhat more arms-length than a UK minister acting as the “recognition body”, this does not solve the central problem of statute, which must be created by politicians.
Leveson goes to some lengths to set out criteria for an independent appointments panel to appoint the independent chair and board of the “independent” regulator. But if MPs first vote on the detailed statute that sets up the panel and the criteria for the regulator, then this proposal threatens press freedom in the UK and Cameron must remain resolute in his opposition to this.
Leveson’s proposal for a cheap, effective arbitration service is one that Index welcomes — this can benefit both complainants and publishers in ensuring complaints can be dealt with swiftly, fairly, and without great costs. Swift, fair arbitration in this way can deal with those cases where the media is, or is felt to be, impervious to complaints. A much stronger standards arm, fines, and more independent figures on the regulator’s board can all act — as Leveson and the party leaders agree — to transform the behaviour of those parts of the press whose behaviour Leveson castigates in his report.
Leveson calls for much greater transparency in media relations with politicians and the police especially at senior level. Ending cronyism and inappropriate relationships between some journalists, some politicians and some police is important. But insisting all contact between senior police officers and journalists must be transparent risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater — deterring whistle-blowers and inhibiting legitimate journalism.
Leveson insisted today that it was wrong to say that the phone-hacking scandal and other examples of damaging and inappropriate press behaviour and intrusion into individuals’ privacy were due to failure to apply the law. But the criminal law does apply to the media, as to other organisations and individuals. And a combination of effective application of existing laws with a stronger independent regulator – set up without any statute or parliamentary vote — can provide the framework for genuine press freedom to be upheld in the UK and to ensure there are higher media standards, better governance, and greater protection for individuals’ from criminal, in appropriate and unjustified media behaviour. A statutory route will undermine the free press that Leveson — and Clegg and Miliband — claim they want to keep.
Kirsty Hughes is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship. She tweets at @Kirsty_Index